Self-Promotion for Filmmakers: Do’s and Don’ts

On this website and elsewhere, there has been a lot of talk, writing, blogging, and general carrying-on lately about self-distribution. It’s undoubtedly an exciting time for self-distro. Since promotion is part of distribution, it follows that self-promotion is an often necessary facet, at least at first, of self-distribution. And that is tricky stuff. Here’s a true story:

One day, while at a film festival, I was walking to the festival’s main cinema. When I arrived, conspicuously parked outside the cinema was an ostentatious new car. The entire car had been custom-painted and tricked out to promote… a short film. (The car alone, not even counting the paint job, probably cost more than my own short.) The film might have been interesting, but I’ll never know. I chose not to see it because I was immediately suspicious of a film whose promotion was disproportionate to its (under 10-minute) running time. This desperate attempt at self-promotion did the exact opposite of what it was supposed to do. Instead of enticing me to see the film, it told me avoid it.

When any kind promotion backfires it can be pretty ugly, but for some reason it just seems all the uglier when it’s self-promotion that backfires. (For me it’s probably because I’m more apt to laugh at corporations, but feel pity for individuals. But I digress.) The point is, I think a lot of filmmakers hurt their self-distribution efforts by not seeing the moral of my story above, which (in case you didn’t get it) is: Be modest in your self-promotion.

I know this sounds paradoxical, but like most paradoxes, it’s true. If the work speaks for itself, you’ll be surprised at how quickly other people will speak for you.

Perhaps you’ve seen it too — a filmmaker’s attempt at self-promotion becomes an expression of self-deception, arrogance, or willful hucksterism (calling one’s own work “groundbreaking!” or “a masterpiece!”). Sometimes — and just as bad — it’s an exercise in bad faith. By “bad faith” I mean that filmmakers that are scared to admit that they’re just one person trying to tell a simple story with modest means. Instead they dress their work up with pretentious lingo they’ve heard used (more appropriately) by multinational corporations: They refer to their projects as being by, say, “XYZ Studios in association with FGH Productions” instead of just “John and Jane Doe.” They talk about their “brand” before they have made 30 minutes of material. They credit themselves not only as Writer, Director, and Producer, but also as Executive Producer.

Why? These tactics don’t make the film better, nor do they make me take the film more seriously. Quite the opposite. And, perhaps more to the point, What’s wrong with being an individual filmmaker working with modest means? There’s no shame in it and, in fact, there is something beautiful about it. If you own up to it, that is.

With this in mind, here are some hopefully helpful do’s and don’ts, which spring from my experiences distributing my own shorts, as well as from working at film festivals, being a festival judge, being a teacher of filmmaking, and being a moviegoer and DVD renter/purchaser:

DO: Start by making the best film you can. That means unique, non-derivative, and crafted to the best of your abilities and resources.
DON’T: Bill yourself or your film as something you or it is not.

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DO: Credit yourself. Once or twice in your opening titles, closing credits, and video materials is enough. If your film is good, we’ll remember your name or seek it out.
DON’T: Credit yourself repeatedly with separate cards for Writer, Director, Art Diector, Cinematographer, Editor and (especially) Executive Producer. Remember, Orson Welles saved his name for last in Citizen Kane‘s credits, and even then he humbly shared the card with Gregg Toland, his cinematographer.

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DO: Use others’ (i.e., critics, festival organizers, interesting bloggers, etc.) words to promote your film. We’ll take it seriously.
DON’T: Use self-congratulatory and outrageous adjectives of praise without attribution in your press releases. We know you wrote it.

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DO: Have a modest (but well-written) information kit, which includes a synopsis, unpretentious bios of cast and crew, any press clippings, and maybe a well-designed postcard. Stills are essential, too, but prints aren’t necessary. Digital files are usually fine.
DON’T: Promote your film with gimmicks, pandering, or anything else that takes the focus away from your film. People in animal costumes. Tricked out cars. Posters that measure over 150 square feet. I wish I was making this stuff up, but I’m not. I’ve seen it.

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DO: Have a website with essential information about the film and, for features, a clip or trailer. A blog, if well-written, can be interesting.
DON’T: Have six blogs, all written by you, and all devoted to your film. It looks sad or, worse, desperate. When you alone and no one else promotes your film so hard you make me think it’s not worth seeing.

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DO: Email people that might be especially interested in your work — bloggers, critics, whoever — with personal notes to let them know about your film. If you don’t know the person, it’s better if it goes through a mutual friend, but if you have to do it yourself, make it personal.
DON’T: Email self-congratulatory press releases randomly or repeatedly, especially when the quotes are your own.

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DO: Ask people who like your film — festival organizers, microcinema programmers, etc — if they know of others that might also like it.
DON’T: Give the “hard sell” to anyone, especially industry people. It’s a turn-off.

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DO: Consider having a “email newsletter” for anyone that is interested. Keep it short and send it no more than once every few months.
DON’T: Send long, unsolicited emails in bulk. We have a name for that. It’s “spam.”

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This stuff should be self-evident for a lot of people, but if it was evident to everyone I wouldn’t be posting. I’m basically just saying: Be smart, be honest, keep a sense of humor about this stuff, and remember people sometimes listen more closely when you whisper. Let others form their own, hopefully positive, opinions about your work. And when they do your task of self-distribution becomes easier because the burden of expressing praise is shared by others.

And remember: While I may have some experience with this stuff, I’m certainly not the Pope of Self-Distribution. These are just one person’s opinions, and I definitely invite your comments, dissenting and otherwise.

14 Responses to “Self-Promotion for Filmmakers: Do’s and Don’ts”

  1. Sujewa Ekanayake Says:

    The type of marketing you do will have to depend on the kind of movie that you are marketing. Also, not every potential customer for a movie will respond the same to a given publicity attempt. Por Ejemplo, I would have dug the tricked out car, and would have gone to see that short, but Paul didn’t. Anyway, an over-the-top movie can benefit from similar over-the-top marketing/publicity. There are very few must do’s in film marketing & publicity, try things out & see what works for a given project.

    Also, having multiple blogs has been very beneficial to my current project & career, so far.

    Good post Paul.

    Sujewa
    ******

  2. William Says:

    I like the post but I do have to agree with Sujewa. Each project is different. I worked the IFP Market here in NYC the year Joe Carnahan entered with Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane. Now with a title, film and filmmaker like that would you expect a 101 lb skater dude to be handing out xerox flyers near the bathroom? He came in with a crew and shook the place up and it brought attention to his film. I think the film dictates what the marketing should be. The downside is with everyone yelling about their film it just becomes noise not to mention the fact that most of those films will be obnoxiously bad.

    Welcome to America…

    Be creative with your promotion and have it fit your film project. There is no shame in being a filmmaker of modest means.

    I like the blog. Keep up the good work.

    William

  3. Paul Says:

    I agree. Promotion must always be tailored according to projects. Considerations of self-promotion, however, can remain something of a constant.

    Perhaps a good guideline to consider is: When in doubt, promote the film, not the self.

    As for William’s point about the IFP Market, I agree — there’s nothing wrong with creative attention. But it’s telling that the IFP, beginning in 2002, changed the entire approach of the Market because they wanted to avoid the carny-like atmosphere. And by “carny” I mean the kinds with rollercoasters, not Ray Carney. THAT would be an interesting festival. ;)

  4. Sujewa Ekanayake Says:

    Re:” They credit themselves not only as Writer, Director, and Producer, but also as Executive Producer.”

    I think crediting self as Exec. Producer is appropriate if you used your own money to fund the project (a significant amount of the project’s budget – like maybe 1/3 or so, depending on the $ amount of course). Since Exec. Producers usually mean people who’ve put up the cash for the project – at least in the indie world.

    If your project is entirely self funded then listing self as Producer is probably enough, since there won’t be any reason (most likely) for Exec Producer credits on that project.

    Sujewa
    *******

  5. AJ Says:

    My feeling is that two credit cards should be the limit (unless you’re acting in it, in which case 3). Of course as the director you’re doing more – you’re producing a little, you may be operating some, editing some, choosing the music, etc.). But whenever I see someone giving themselves credit after credit, I think that a) they must think the audience is really naive that they need to continually point out that “not only did I direct this film, I also had a hand in all these other departments” – well, of course you did, and b) it feels so much like overcompensating for an insecurity that you aren’t getting the credit you deserve. In short, you look inexperienced.

    The thing is, the director (rightfully or not) almost always gets 90% of the credit no matter what. He or she is the one invited to film festivals, credited or blamed in the reviews. No matter how important the team that surrounds him or her, the director will be almost always the focal point – particularly in independent film (of course, there may always be a celebrity actor that gets most of the attention and praise).

  6. dvd Says:

    What a terrific post, Paul! I’ve known more than a few filmmakers who shoot themsevles in the foot, promotionally, going for cloying overexposure rather than getting the project out there and letting it speak for itself. It’s a hard balance – I probably err too far on the side of underpromotion, myself – but I think it’s absolutely vital to maintain some humility in the process, and, as soon as the film is capable of speaking for itself, to sit back and let it.

  7. Chris Says:

    Does modesty mean that one shouldn’t have promoted Bubble as “another Steven Soderbergh experience”?

  8. Josh Boelter Says:

    Although I could give myself half a dozen credits on my film (unless proper funding comes my way before production begins), I’ll just give myself writer and director credits and use fake names for the other jobs I did. That’s what I really want to do on future films anyway: write and direct. As an industry outsider working on a microbudget indie I have to take on other roles, but I’m not concerned about getting credit for those roles. And I’d rather have a bigger crew on future projects so I won’t have to do some of those jobs in the future.

  9. Paul Says:

    Chris – Remember, my notes were on self-promotion vis-a-vis self-distribution. Soderbergh isn’t distributing his work by himself, so I think it’s a little different. He’s got HDNet behind him and, while I imagine Soderbergh might have had some approval over such things, he also has the luxury of not having to be the author of promotional copy. Plus, in the specific case of Bubble, I think that “Another Steven Soderbergh experience” line is meant a little tongue-in-cheek. I could be wrong, but that’s the way I took it. (Check out the promotional materials for Schizopolis.)

  10. J Alden Says:

    Love your blog, and especially this latest post. Seen lots of poorly done self-promotion, and in fact am quite shy about doing it myself, partially for exactly why you state. For me, it’s always about the film, the work, the craft. Plus, I just really don’t like drawing attention to myself. Maybe I’m in the wrong biz? No, nothing beats the process of creation. The other stuff, well you can have it. Sure, sure, I know, it’s somethin I gotta do. Also, as far as credits, on shorts I’ve just used pseudonyms and not even told people everything I did. Ha, guess I’m not the best to promote my own stuff. Keep up the good work.

  11. John Summers Says:

    Bubble & Soderbergh is a good example of what you’re talking about. His DP credit is given to Peter Andrews and his editing, to Mary Ann Bernard.

    Executive Producer in independent film should have nothing to do with where the money came from. If there’s no Executive Producer we know either the Producer or the Director came up with it. Executive Producer should be reserved for that one celebrity you know who can get the film seen. eg. Eli Roth became a small name with Cabin Fever, but when Hostel came out Tarantino’s name was slapped on it as Executive Producer (aka Presenter).

  12. Sujewa Ekanayake Says:

    ” Executive Producer should be reserved for that one celebrity you know who can get the film seen. ”

    Hmmm. Everyone can do absolutely what they want on such a trivial matter as credits on an indie film, as long as they are honest I think. Giving the Exec. Prod. credit to someone just to get more attention to the film seems dishonest, unless that celebrity did something on the film besides acting in it (they’ll already have a credit for that) or saying: “use my name to get more press for your project.” Besides, that kind of dilemma is more Indiewood then indie. The kind of films that use celebrity factor to pull in an audience are closer to traditional Hollywood fare as opposed to a low budget/no star indie film. Most indie filmmakers reading this blog probably do not have celebrity crediting dilemmas. Either way, as long as people are honest, I think there is some flexibility in the exact titles given to people in the credits.

    And all that said, I am totally giving an Executive Producer credit to people who finance my films, and if that group includes me in a given project, then I’ll be listed as an executive producer. ’cause the film would not happen w/ out those people deciding to fund it. And it’s cool to celebrate the people who made the film possible.

    Sujewa
    http://www.wilddiner.com/
    **********************

  13. Shaz Says:

    He who shouts loudest? Possibly. He who holds the biggest weapon etc etc

    There is no doubt that you have to masterplan a movie, and that really is part of the overall plan to market the film, the filmmaker etc etc.

    There is no point in whispering. Shout it out loud, because in this film world space, no one will hear otherwise.

  14. Paul Says:

    A dissent: Speak softly and carry a big stick good movie.